Monday, March 10, 2008
Updated: March 11, 4:34 PM ET
Once like family, ASU coach and former player now at odds
By Elizabeth Merrill and Amy K. Nelson
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ty Murphy taught his boys that one of the worst things a man could do was lie. Suspicious a son was lying, he gathered the young man's belongings, threw them on the lawn and didn't let him come home for four months. Quick to criticize, slow to love. That, some say, is what planted a chip the size of Camelback Mountain on Pat Murphy's shoulder. But he was not like his father.
The old man was 50 when Pat was born. They never really played catch in the yard. They rarely displayed their affections. But in the Murphy house, they knew loyalty, because families kept things internal. So what if you're 13, behind the wheel with no license, because pops was too drunk to drive? So what if you spent most of your childhood alone?
"People laugh because I tell them I go to counseling," Murphy says. "I say, 'Where the hell else can you go for two-and-a-half hours and talk about yourself and have somebody actually listen to you?'"
The complexity and seeming candor of Pat Murphy, undoubtedly, is making things difficult for Arizona State. When a coach is the subject of a university investigation and a school hires an outside firm to determine if he's broken NCAA rules, the normal protocol is that all parties must keep quiet.
"BASEBALL QUESTIONS ONLY," an ASU media type barks after the top-ranked Sun Devils blast Michigan on a cool desert night recently. A gaggle of reporters has little interest in Ike Davis' bat but ample curiosity about the internal rift that could put a major dent in one of college baseball's powerhouses. "IF YOU ASK A NON-BASEBALL QUESTION, THE PRESS CONFERENCE WILL BE OVER."
Murphy, it seems, can't help himself. He is sitting in an empty room and his 7-year-old son Kai is bouncing around in an oversized Arizona State uniform. It is past 10 p.m. Red Sox phenom Dustin Pedroia sent a text message today, Murphy says. This s--- can't slow you down. Murphy thumbed one back. Don't worry about the fat old guy. He'll be all right.
Step almost anywhere near Brock Ballpark, and they'll say Mikel Moreno is wrong and Pat Murphy is right. They'll paint Moreno as a bitter 32-year-old valet with fading dreams, an ex-employee bent on taking down a man who's been near the top of his profession for almost two decades. They'll say Moreno's allegations of academic fraud, recruiting violations and other improprieties are unfounded.
But step further, past the campus skateboarders and fist-pumping boosters, and you'll hear people call Moreno a "true Sun Devil," a hard-nosed former MVP outfielder who lived for the maroon-and-gold and just wants to do what is right.
One month into another stellar ASU baseball season, only one thing seems certain -- that somewhere, two men with seemingly similar tough-luck backgrounds and character credos grossly miscalculated each other. And their falling-out could inevitably damage the one thing they commonly loved.
"To me, Mikel Moreno is what college baseball is all about … Maybe I am harder on him. I see so much in that young man. It's been a pleasure to be around the kid. It's not easy, because he's a great challenge. But I would want him with me in every baseball situation I was ever in." -- Pat Murphy in an interview with The Omaha World-Herald during the 1998 College World Series
It was New Year's Eve when Murphy told Moreno he wouldn't be part of the Arizona State baseball program any more. A few days later, Moreno's mother placed an anonymous call to the university. Roberta Cole said Murphy was a verbally abusive coach whom the university needed to look into. Moreno says he had no idea she made the call.
In Moreno's version of his termination, he says that he was blindsided by the news, and that Murphy let him go because ASU had too many people on staff. Murphy says Moreno was fired for lack of production and for bad-mouthing other coaches.
Within days of Roberta Cole's phone call, ASU was in touch with Moreno. He wonders, now, if the school traced the call. (ASU officials aren't commenting on details of the investigation, and are calling it an "inquiry." To date, sources say, the NCAA has not started its own probe.) Moreno told investigators from Ice Miller, an Indianapolis-based law firm hired by ASU, that he called and made at least one recruiting visit to meet with coveted junior-college slugger Kiel Roling, eventually convincing Roling to withdraw his commitment to Mississippi and instead go to Tempe. Moreno was listed as a graduate manager at the time. Under NCAA rules, only coaches are allowed to recruit.
Moreno also made allegations of academic fraud.
When word of the university investigation hit in late-February, rumors swirled that more than half the team would be suspended for academic reasons. Murphy has disputed the rumors. The Sun Devils shrugged off the talk and rolled to a 12-0 start.
But questions still linger. Former ASU pitcher Jason Mitchell, who transferred to Central Arizona, told ESPN.com that he and a handful of teammates took online quizzes together last year and helped each other with the answers. Mitchell says the course, Music 354, was popular among baseball players. One semester they'd learn about the history of Elvis; another semester delves into the Beatles.
"We'd take it one at a time," Mitchell says. "One person would go, and the next person would go, and the answers would be the same.
"It is cheating, but I don't think it was anything major. I have friends outside the baseball team in the same classes, and they'd do the same thing. Every single person I knew did the same thing."
Mitchell says Murphy never encouraged him to cheat. The players knew grades were important. If you weren't dedicated enough to go to class, you weren't dedicated enough to play. In team meetings, Murphy called out players who struggled with grades.
"Hey, Mitchell, how's this class going?" Mitchell says Murphy would ask in front of other players. The coach, Mitchell says, already knew how he was doing grade-wise. Murphy once asked Mitchell to keep tabs on star pitcher Jason Jarvis.
"I was his roommate last year," Mitchell says, "and was kind of in charge of making sure he got to class at times, making sure he did his homework on time. I personally didn't do any of his work. I don't think any of my roommates did, either."
Though he calls Mitchell "a good kid," Murphy says he's upset by his former pitcher's claim. He says the university needs to take a serious look at online classes and whether they lend themselves to misdeeds.
"They know my rule about cheating," Murphy says. "If you cheat, you're gone."
The 2005 ASU media guide says that in two decades of coaching, Murphy never had a player academically ineligible. In 2007, Jarvis missed part of the season because of grades. He is pitching again while he appeals an online grade.
Jarvis was at the center of a dispute between Murphy and Moreno last fall. Murphy wanted Jarvis to move in with Moreno. Moreno balked; Murphy won. Moreno was living, rent-free, in one of Murphy's houses.
Moreno says the house was part of Murphy's deal to lure him back. In the summer of 2006, Moreno was floundering professionally. He'd held assistant coaching jobs at Central Arizona and the University of New Orleans, and was training to become a police officer in Chandler, Ariz. He'd been a star in Tempe and led his team to the final game of the 1998 College World Series. Sun Devils fans thought he was destined for the big leagues. He spent a couple of seasons in the Cubs' farm system, but when his wife became pregnant, he wanted to be there for the first few months of his child's life.
Like Murphy, Moreno had a tough childhood and a strained relationship with his father. Murphy couldn't offer him a salary, but Moreno says he promised him the house and the chance to make up to $50,000 a year working his camps. They shook hands, and Moreno packed.
Now he's pondering his precipitous fall from the Sun Devils dugout to a night job parking cars.
"Just blind faith," Moreno says. "I have nobody to blame but myself. I put myself in that situation. I wanted to work for ASU so bad, I would have done anything."
"Murph's job is to win ballgames, but he really does put other things ahead of that. He doesn't conform to other people and the conventional ways. He always reminded us, 'You're real close to greatness and real close to being putrid.' … He'd tell me, 'Be grateful you have a f---ing locker. You're not bigger than the program.' Best coach I ever had." -- Mikel Moreno, in a 2006 magazine article for Phoenix's New Times
They came from a "dysfunctional Irish Catholic family," but neither Dan Murphy nor his little brother Pat will say it was unhappy. Dan heard his father say "I love you" once. The old man was on his deathbed, taking his last breaths before succumbing to emphysema. By the time Pat was old enough to swing a bat, his siblings were essentially grown-ups.
But if there was one thing that brought them together, for an afternoon or weekend, it was Notre Dame. Little Pat would hitchhike 600 or so miles, from Syracuse, N.Y., to South Bend, Ind., and sneak into the football games. He applied to Notre Dame repeatedly, only to be turned down because of the stiff academic requirements.
He went to three different colleges, played three different sports, and wasn't, he says, good at any of them. He was young and angry. He'd go to the boxing gym at night, after football practice, and fight. He was the only white kid there.
"Even though we knew instinctively that we all loved each other," Dan says, "that wasn't something you showed. You didn't show tears, you didn't show love, but anger. … That was OK. Discipline? That was OK. My dad grew up and lived his life with a chip on his shoulder, and he passed that on.
"I think Pat always felt like he had to prove himself. He always felt he had to show you."
After a few small-college coaching stints, the Notre Dame baseball job opened up in 1987. Murphy was 29 and underqualified. Luckily for him, the Fighting Irish baseball program was nearly defunct. After a decent amount of begging, he took over a program that had two available scholarships to split among 30-plus men.
That first class, he recruited a quiet, 135-pound infielder named Craig Counsell
. The scholarship offer was $500, and Counsell's parents somehow scrounged up the rest of the tuition that totaled near $20,000.
"I paid off my tuition with my first World Series share, actually," Counsell says. "He's a fighter. Of course Murphy had a ton of energy. I was kind of drawn in by his energy and his passion."
They started a run that took the Fighting Irish to the NCAA regionals and an average of 46 wins a year. Fans swore Murphy would never leave. In 1994, after Arizona State lost coach Jim Brock to cancer, Murphy was asked to become just the third coach in the program's history. Well aware of the pressure -- and the love the school had for Brock, who won two national championships -- Murphy packed his bags for Tempe, landing one of the most coveted jobs in all of college baseball at 35. The news shocked the college baseball community and engendered jealousy, too.
His brash style and aggressive nature quickly rubbed folks the wrong way. In 1997, Baseball America wrote an article titled, "Black Hat Pat." It chronicled Murphy's reputation as a coach who was accused of everything from having his pitchers intentionally aim at batters' heads to throwing temper tantrums that cast him as an outlandish outsider.
The divisions were clear -- you either loved Murphy or you despised him.
"Let's say he had a reputation where he was disliked by a lot of coaches," says renowned sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, a friend of Murphy's. "Absolutely disliked. What is the motive of somebody disliking you? Could they be jealous of you … or could [they] not like the things that you do? Now, much of that dislike was based on his style, the way he presented himself.
"Believe it or not, even the way he walked out to the mound … some of them thought it was too slow. They thought he was posturing. If you don't like somebody, you can find fault in the dumbest, most picayune things."
But Murphy's detractors said they disliked him for reasons that weren't so minor. In the spring of 1997, Damien Kolb quit the team because he was tired of the way Murphy was treating him. Kolb says Murphy peppered him with insults, said inappropriate things about his mother, called him "Pretty Boy F--."
"…He ran his baseball program like a cult," says Kolb, whose parents say they filed a complaint with ASU. "He encourages kids to not tell their families what they're doing.
"You get a scholarship to one of the best schools in the country for baseball, and the guy who's in charge of a great deal of your kid's future … he's treating them like that. They're 1,000 miles away from home, and you've got some guy being a creep. It's unfortunate that he's in charge of so many kids' future in that program with the way he treats people."
Murphy denies using the word "f--" and says he's offended by the homophobic slur.
He doesn't hide the fact that the Sun Devils have had their share of turnover. He says Arizona State baseball isn't for everybody. He'll over-recruit to make up for losses through the draft and injuries. He'll tell a player, one year in, to consider transferring to somewhere else if he's destined for the bench.
"[Moreno's] got 20 ballplayers who hate me," Murphy says. "I hope that I have 20 who hate me. They should. Guys that I cut, guys I told couldn't play here, guys I kicked off the team for different reasons…
"What I tell a kid, I stand behind. What happens is those kids can't uphold their end of the bargain."
Some alumni say Dorfman has helped Murphy mellow. Some don't really care. Andre Ethier, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers
, had to leave after his first year at ASU and play at a junior college before being allowed back as a walk-on. He says Murphy nicknamed him "Johnny Junior College." He also says Murphy's tough love helped him get into the big leagues.
"The thing I vividly remember when we lost in '98 to [USC] in the World Series finals, when we came home, we had a team meeting. And Mikel Moreno stood up and said, 'If anyone ever says anything bad about this program, I will hunt him down and find him.' I'm not the only one who remembers that conversation. His exact words were, 'If anyone bites the hand that feeds them, I'll find him.'" -- Willie Bloomquist, now a Seattle Mariners infielder
The lights are about to dim at Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark, and Murphy jokingly ponders his place and what Arizona State will someday name after him.
"Murphy's Outhouse," he says. "The Port-A-Potties with my picture on it."
His face turns serious.
"The school … I'm not in the school's favor, you know what I mean?" he says. "I've been through seven athletic director changes. The school, they're trying to find themselves, and they don't need trouble from the baseball coach. I probably talk too much and I probably say my piece too much and am not politically correct enough.
"This athletic director [Lisa Love], she doesn't know how to take me. She doesn't totally trust me. … I think she doesn't see me yet, but that's OK. She's a professional. I've just got to be me."
Love has declined to comment on the investigation and on Murphy.
He's asked if he runs a clean program. He says that should be obvious.
"I've been so open about it, that…"
His cell phone rings, and it's his lawyer.
Murphy says he's confident the only thing the investigation will drudge up is ticky-tack unwitting violations. But deep down, he knows it's opened up much more than that.
He asks his daughter to take Kai home, bribes the boy with snack money, but Kai wants to hang with pops. They talk about the team bus ride they're missing, and how the rookies will be standing up in front of everybody, singing songs like "Sweet Caroline," telling their new teammates about their first kiss. Murphy loves those team bonding moments. Maybe, a long time ago, Moreno did, too.
By all accounts, they were once like family. Moreno was the gritty ex-ballplayer who'd sacrifice his body and his soul for the Sun Devils. Murphy was the mentor, the father figure. They'd watch their sons play together and take trips to Las Vegas. Moreno named his son Mikel Patrick.
Six months ago, it seems, they shared nearly everything. Now they're lined up on opposite ends with an imaginary chalk line, separating friends and foes, fact from fiction.
"I just told them what I witnessed," Moreno says. "I just wanted to tell the truth."
A friendship is gone, the Sun Devils are dominating and nobody is quite sure what the truth is yet. Murphy says he has a soft spot for the underdog, even when it comes back to bite him. But he still believes in loyalty. He has a tattoo on his back with a partial list of those he loves. He knows it sounds strange, that a man in his late 40s would get such a thing. Dorfman is on the tattoo, and so is Kai. His friends are close. And the enemies aren't too far behind.
"It ain't over, either," Murphy says. "He's not going to be satisfied. Because it's going to come out clean … and he's going to try something else.
"He's going to make a scene. That's going to be his MO until he crashes and burns."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
. Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn3.com